A New Study on Muscle Loss That’s Out of this World


Last Updated on December 3, 2020

Muscles feeling creaky? Losing strength? You are not alone. One of the downsides of getting older is the involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function, a condition called Sarcopenia.

But University of Florida researchers have launched a plan, literally. A rocket bound for the International Space Station Saturday morning will carry a miniaturized laboratory that will analyze tiny muscle cells contained on tissue chips.

Researchers hope that the study will allow them to understand microgravity effects on human muscle cells, with the prospects of aiding the development of new therapies for age-related muscle loss on Earth.

The experiment will continue for 14 days in space. The laboratory itself is expected to spend a month aboard the International Space Station. The plan is to preserve the muscle cells in a special liquid once the experiment concludes, allowing scientists to complete gene expression analysis when the chips return to Earth.

“Astronauts experience extreme muscle weakness in space, and similar muscle changes occur when people age on Earth, although at a much slower pace,” said Siobhan Malany, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy, running point on the project.

“If you study age-related incidences, you have to look over many years to see changes. In space, the microgravity effect accelerates muscle mass changes. Our experiment should provide some great insight into muscle cell biology and why tissues respond differently in space.”

The experiment will feature 16 skeletal muscle cells loaded onto the chips. Half the cells were biopsied from people under 40. The other half were collected from adults over 60. Half of the cells in each group will receive electronic stimulation that prompts muscle contractions.

“We want to see if there is a difference between young and old cells over time and compare how the cells react to electronic stimulation,” said Shelby Giza, a biological scientist in the UF College of Pharmacy and project manager for the space research mission. “When the cells return from space, we’ll run the same experiment on the ground, so we can compare results between Earth and microgravity.”

Sarcopenia primarily affects adults over 65 and leads to a higher risk of fall, fractures and mobility problems. Muscle mass decreases approximately three to eight percent per decade after the age of 30, although a growing field of science suggests with regular exercise, this can be mitigated. It’s what Growing Bolder calls prehabilitation: positive lifestyle modifications such as exercise, diet, rest and stress reduction. Prehab is the key to reducing future health care costs and the impacts of future health setbacks. 

With America’s population living longer, health problems related to sarcopenia are expected to increase. For now, exercise is considered the primary treatment for the condition. There are no approved drug therapies.

The rocket carrying UF’s laboratory will launch at 11:39 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 5, from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for Space X’s 21st Commercial Resupply Services Mission.

And while science unearths its answers from amongst the stars, back here on Earth, you can start prehabbing today.

Related Stories 12 of 626

Related Stories 12 of 626